More than 1,000 Orthodox Jews are waiting on the Belarus-Ukraine border, after their attempts to enter the country for a religious pilgrimage were rebuffed due to coronavirus concerns.
Ukrainian government video from the scene showed hundreds of men and boys waiting along a highway in Belarus to try to enter Ukraine. Some have set up tents, apparently after having waited overnight.
Border guards in helmets and body armor policed a row of barricades blocking them from coming into the country. Ukraine has been closed to foreigners since August.
The pilgrims have been given food and water, the Ukrainian border service said.
Ukraine is the burial place of the late-18th century Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the great-grandson of the founder of the Hasidic movement. His grave in the town of Uman is a site of pilgrimage often visited by ultra-Orthodox Jews around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins on Friday night this year.
Avraham Shapira, an Israeli pilgrim who is at the border with his children, told CNN that he’d booked a direct flight from Tel Aviv to Kiev four weeks ago, because he heard the border would be closed.
When he got to the airport, he said, the flight was canceled and he booked new tickets to Kiev via London. In London, his next flight was canceled too, but he was able to book a ticket to Belarus.
He praised the Belarus government for providing “all the services” needed by the pilgrims crossing the border, saying the Belarusians have offered to provide buses to bring the pilgrims directly to Uman, stay two days and return to Belarus.
Shapira added the group would not “see any citizen of Ukraine. It’s not a danger for anybody. I come to pray for the world, I don’t come to pray only for me.”
Belarus, which has faced international criticism over its hotly disputed presidential election, confirmed it had offered to transport the pilgrims.
“Our country is ready to take responsibility on all these functions and, of course, organize the process as safely as possible, for instance it will not affect the situation with the Covid disease rate,” said President Alexander Lukashenko’s press secretary Natalia Eismont said in a statement.
Ukraine’s government has issued an order to close its border to foreigners from August 28 until September 28 to prevent the spread of coronavirus, according to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs.